In face of COVID-19 spike, New York Orthodox Jews take holiday prayers outside

By Gabriella Borter

MONSEY, N.Y. (Reuters) – Standing at least six feet apart and wearing skullcaps, prayer shawls and face masks, about two dozen Orthodox Jewish men pored over texts this week on a lawn in New York’s Monsey suburb, filling a quiet morning with the soft hum of Hebrew prayer.

Rather than crowd into a synagogue, the group has congregated outside a neighbor’s house each day to observe the week-long festival of Sukkot, one of many Jewish holidays this time of year coinciding with a sharp rise in coronavirus cases among members of this insular religious community.

Rockland County, encompassing Monsey and lying about 40 miles (64 km) north of New York City, is one of the state’s most troubled hotspots. Since March, nearly 700 of its people have died from COVID-19, more than in 15 individual U.S. states, according to a Reuters tally.

A recent spike in infections after a summer lull has been a somber reminder that the virus is still spreading, especially in places where large groups gather for religious or other reasons without adhering to public health guidance.

“The community had such terrible losses in the early days, and the last thing we need is to have such things happen again,” said Rabbi Asher Bush of Congregation Ahavat Yisrael in the Rockland village of Wesley Hills. “That would be utter, utter catastrophe.”

The open-air service is one of many adjustments that Orthodox Jews throughout the world have had to make in their traditions. The High Holiday season that includes the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is typically marked by mass prayer services, big family meals and travel. The celebrations traditionally feature group dancing. All of that now is forbidden because of the virus.

Two Rockland zip codes had positive coronavirus test rates top 15% over the weekend, compared to the state average of just over 1%, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The viral spread has been especially acute in the Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Rockland County, as well as in New York’s Orange County and Brooklyn, areas where the governor says social distancing and mask-wearing have not been adequately enforced.

A drop in infection rates prompted some people – including, but not limited to, Orthodox Jews – to become more lax about mask-wearing and social distancing, several members of the Orthodox Jewish community told Reuters.

“It’s critically important for everybody to buy into this,” said Aaron Glatt, an associate rabbi at an Orthodox congregation in Woodmere, New York, and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau.

Tuvia Rotberg, a bookstore owner, hosted the outdoor Sukkot services in a white, open-air tent. He launched outdoor services for daily and Sabbath prayers just as the pandemic gripped New York in March and has kept them up, even though synagogues now are open with limited capacity.


On Tuesday, Cuomo planned to meet with Orthodox Jewish leaders in Rockland and Orange counties and Brooklyn, after announcing the state would enforce mask mandates and social-distancing laws in those areas.

This week he ordered that schools be closed in 11 New York City neighborhoods where a high concentration of Orthodox Jews live. He also said he might enforce a new round of business and school shutdowns in Rockland County.

“I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues,” Cuomo told reporters on Monday.

Health officials in Orange County on Tuesday shut down schools in the Village of Kiryas Joel and the Town of Palm Tree, which have large Orthodox Jewish populations, because of a burgeoning outbreak, News 12 Hudson Valley reported.

Rabbi Bush of Wesley Hills said his synagogue has been diligent about enforcing social distancing and masks, although he recently attended a service at another synagogue where other worshipers gathered in a tent outdoors without masks.

“There is a very large gamut of how different congregations are conducting themselves,” he said.

But if there was nonchalance at the end of the summer, recent hospitalizations of friends and family have forced many Orthodox Jews to acknowledge the severity of the situation, community members told Reuters.

“People are trying,” said Shoshana Bernstein, a communications professional in Monsey whose family has been attending outdoor services during Sukkot. “And if they weren’t doing the right thing last week, then more people are doing the right thing this week.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Howard Goller)

Top Israeli rabbis, and U.S. envoy, pray for Trump recovery

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s top rabbis prayed for U.S. President Donald Trump to recover from COVID-19 on Monday, invoking his name in a Jewish holiday ceremony at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Support for Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to the city, is strong among Israelis, who mark the Jewish high holidays this year while under a second coronavirus lockdown.

“May He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon send healing to Donald John, son of Fred,” intoned Shmuel Rabinovitch, rabbi of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site.

“May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion for him, restore him, cure him, strengthen him, enliven him,” he said, reciting the traditional prayer for those in ill health, to amens from Israel’s two chief rabbis and U.S. ambassador David Friedman.

They were attending a ceremony, coinciding with the Sukkot festival, in which members of Judaism’s priestly caste bless the public in a chant at the Western Wall.

With Israel struggling against a surge in coronavirus cases, attendance was drastically pared down this year.

Heading to the event as an invited guest, Friedman tweeted that it was “normally attended by thousands, today just 20”.

“I will pray for God’s mercy and healing upon all those throughout the world afflicted with Covid-19,” he said.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Biblical vistas, modern-day security along Israel-Egypt border road

A general view shows the border fence between Israel and Egypt in southern Israel September 26, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

ISRAEL-EGYPT BORDER (Reuters) – A normally sealed-off road along the Israel-Egypt border was opened for a Jewish holiday, giving travelers on the Israeli side a glimpse into the Sinai desert backdrop to the biblical journey commemorated by the festival.

Israeli tourists stand at a watch point over looking the Israel-Egypt border during the Sukkot holiday in southern Israel September 26, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli tourists stand at a watch point over looking the Israel-Egypt border during the Sukkot holiday in southern Israel September 26, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

The Sukkot holiday celebrates the biblical story of God’s protection of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt and 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, which religious scholars say included the Sinai.

Israel’s narrow Route 10 runs along the Egyptian border from the Gaza frontier in the north before connecting to a highway into Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Curving along an Israeli security fence, it is usually closed to civilian traffic and patrolled regularly by the Israeli military. Egyptian watchtowers dot the other side.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, but fighting has raged in areas of the Sinai in recent years between Islamic State militants and the Egyptian military.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Tens of thousands at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for priestly blessing

Jewish worshippers, some covered in prayer shawls, pray during a priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of worshippers packed Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza on Wednesday to receive a blessing from members of Judaism’s priestly caste.

Holding prayers shawls above their heads and covering their faces, the priests, known as “Kohanim” in Hebrew, began chanting the blessing, which begins: “The Lord bless you and keep you”.

The ceremony is held during the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, the latter of which is being celebrated this week.

A Jewish worshipper prays during a priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

A Jewish worshipper prays during a priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

The Kohanim on Wednesday included the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“It’s my opportunity to bless the people of Israel,” Friedman, an Orthodox Jew, told reporters.

According to Jewish tradition, Kohanim are descendants of Aaron, Moses’s brother, whose offspring served as priests in the biblical temples of Jerusalem. Many Jews with surnames such as Cohen, Kahan and Katz are Kohanim.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the compound of the Second Temple that was destroyed in 70 AD. It stands today beneath a religious plaza known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller)

Violence at Temple Mount During Start of Jewish Holiday Sukkot

Violence once again erupted between Palestinians and Israeli riot police after young protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, despite an order permitting only men over the age of 50 to enter the compound for prayers.  Women of any age are also allowed entry.  Israel has imposed the ban during times of unrest because it is for the most part, young palestinian men who throw rocks at the holy site. This comes as Jerusalem is filled with those who have come to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City has been a sore point for both Palestinians and Jews.  This ground is very much a center point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Muslims revere it as the place they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, while the Jews call it the Temple Mount, the site of the two biblical Jewish temples.  

Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other projectiles at the Al-Aqsa mosque overnight, according to police spokeswoman Luba Samri.

Palestinians threw rocks, firebombs and firecrackers from within the mosque at the police, Samri also added that the fire bombs sparked a fire at the entrance to the mosque. Waqf guards did not prevent the “desecration of the sanctity of the place,” she said .

Police had tried to negotiate with the Waqf – the Islamic religious authority that oversees the compound – to call for calm, but talks failed and police entered the compound to seize the “dangerous devices intended to harm visitors to the site and police and endanger their lives,” Samri added.

Israeli Police were able to restore calm  but occasional stone throwing continued throughout the morning.  They reported that by noon the site was quiet.